Lady Cats travel tough road to Hammond

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 28, 2001


RESERVE – One hour before tip-off the East St. John gym is relatively quiet. Workers are setting up the concession stand while the East St. John Lady Cats basketball team begins warm-ups. But at 7 p.m. this Thursday night, the quiet will develop into a roar as the Lady Cats take on Higgins in the Class 5A bi-district playoffs. The game against the Lady Hurricanes marks the fifth straight year East St. John has hosted the first round of the state playoffs. The Lady Cats have won the previous four and are looking to continue that streak against a Higgins team that finished third in District 8-5A with a 20-9 record. East St. John enters the contest at 29-3 after winning its fifth straight District 7-5A championship. About 45 minutes before tip-off, East St. John head coach Troy Giordano calls his two senior captains, Kinya Lennix and Danielle Stemley, into his office. Giordano reminds them now that the playoffs have begun, he needs their leadership more than ever. “I told them the games are going to get bigger, the crowds are going to get bigger,” Giordano says afterwards. “The freshmen are going to look to them, follow them and watch their emotions. This is their last chance. If we lose, their careers are over. We will go as far as they will take us. I told them I believed in them and was ready to ride with them as far as they are willing to take us.” About 15 minutes later, the entire team gathers in the squad room. Giordano goes over one final check with the offense and defense with them and reminds the team of the scouting report. He has noticed that the Lady Hurricanes have trouble inbounding the ball and tells his team to attack that. He also reminds them to deny the other teams layups the rest of the way. “If you foul, make it hard,” Giordano said. “Don’t let them get the basket and the foul.” East St. John takes the court with emotion but it’s Higgins that has the hot hand early, taking a 7-3 lead on a 3-pointer by Teressa Allen. The Lady Cats come back to take the lead at 9-7 on two free throws by Kojavona Hamilton with 3:40 left in the opening quarter. A steal and a drive by Lennix builds the lead to 13-10. But Higgins rallies behind a play that Giordano had lectured the team on before the game, getting a three-point play by Keshawn Walker off a drive to take a 15-13 lead at the end of the first quarter. A pass from Erin Keller to Hamilton tied the game at 17 early in the second quarter. Lennix then took a steal in to give the Lady Cats the lead. A put back by Courtney Drayton makes it 24-17 with 4:47 left as Higgins calls a timeout. Higgins pulls to within 26-22 on a put back by Ashley Charles. But lennix answers with two free throws and Stemley snares a steal and finds Hamilton for a 30-22 lead. Two three-point plays by Lennix in the final two minutes gives the Lady Cats a 40-24 lead at halftime. Despite the 16-point lead, Giordano is not happy with his team’s first half performance. “You are making this harder than it is,” Giordano tells them at the break. “Do this in the next playoff game and you will get blown out. You will be one and done. Stop being nervous and throwing shots away. The offense is easy. Just grab the ball and take it to the hoop. Go out there and push the basketball and play some defense.” East St. John does just that with Keller hitting a 3-pointer from the left side on the third possession of the half. Lennix, who had 18 points at the break, drives in for a score to make it 47-26 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. A hook by Drayton and a put back by Lennix gives the Lady Cats a 58-37 lead going into the fourth. The closest Higgins will get is the final score, 68-55. East St. John improves 30-3 on the season and improves its home winning streak to 57 games. But Giordano knows his team will have to improve if it wants to go further in the playoffs. “Number one, I’m going on record as saying we are one and done if we play defense like this,” Giordano tells the team afterwards. You play like this and you are going to get beat. You are going to be in for a war next game. The next team will be twice as good as this team. You have to play defense in the playoffs. Maybe it’s because we haven’t played in two weeks. I hope that’s it. “We are playing Monday night. Warren Easton is good. You are going to have to play defense. The good news is the first round is out of the way. You just have to win four more games and you are the state champions. It’s not that hard if you come out and play your game. Joe Williams, who handles the team’s scorebook, brings in the stats for the game. Giordano notices that the team shot 30 free throws in the final three quarters after shooting just four in the first. “You have to play aggressive basketball,” Giordano says. “The team that hits the most free throws wins 80 percent of the games. We have to play defense and make free throws.” Giordano didn’t know how prophetic his words would be.

Breaking the jinx

The East St. John Lady Cats have achieved a number of firsts since Troy Giordano became coach in 1996, including first undefeated district championship, first playoff win and first 30-win season. But one thing the team has not been able to achieve is a victory in the state regionals. Four straight years the Lady Cats have advanced to the regionals. In all four years, the team has seen its season ended at that point, losing at Denham Springs, John Ehret, Slidell and Airline. This season there will be one difference as East St. John enters the second round. For the first time in school history, the Lady Cats will be holding a regional playoff game in the friendly confines of the East St. John gym. Even with the game at home, the Lady Cats will not have an easy task. Their opponent is Warren Easton, the champions of District 9-5A with a 23-4 record. Just how good the Lady Eagles are would be evident quickly. East St. John quickly jumps out to a 4-0 lead as Kojavona Hamilton finds Kinya Lennix inside. Easton comes right back to take an 8-6 lead in the final minute on a drive by Ronalda Toliver. Lennix ties the game with a jumper but Arielle Bodden buries a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Lady Eagles am 11-8 lead. A 3-pointer from the left corner by Danielle Stemley ties the game at 13 with 6:26 left in the half. The game then turns into a swap meet with the teams trading baskets over the next four minutes. Courtney Drayton drives in along the left baseline to give the Lady Cats their final lead of the half at 22-21 with 2:41 left. Brittany Battiste answers with a drive along the baseline in the final seconds to give the Lady Eagles a 24-22 halftime lead. “Do you want to give it to them and lose the ballgame,” Giordano asks the team at halftime. “We give you a game plan and you ignore it. You don’t want it? Deny the inbound. They have thrown away the ball every time we deny it. Move the ball. Get backside rebounds. If 33 (Sherill Hadrick) cones out, go around her. You’re trying to shoot over her and she is blocking them every time. “If you want to win the game you will. They are out-hustling us. They are a confident team. They think they got us. This is it. Lay it on the line. Give it all you got.” It’s Warren Easton that draws first blood as the third quarter opens as Tracie Johnson buries a 3-pointer from the left side to make it 28-24. But East St. John answers with a 5-0 run, taking a 29-28 lead on Lennix’s jumper in the paint with 5:45 left. The game remains tight throughout the quarter with the Lady Cats finally taking a three-point lead on two free throws by Drayton. With 6.2 seconds left, Hamilton takes an inbounds pass and drives the length of the court, laying in a shot at the buzzer to make it 39-34. Lennix knocks down a turnaround jumper in the lane to give East St. John a 41-35 lead early in the fourth quarter. But the Lady Cats still cannot put Easton away as the Lady Eagles pull to within 45-43 with 1:43 left on two free throws by Johnson. Stemley hustles down an inbounds pass to find Hamilton downcourt but Chantell Dunn answers with a drive to make it 47-45. Easton has a chance to tie the game but turns the ball over on each of its next two possessions. Drayton goes to the line and hits two free throws to make it 49-45 with 44.4 seconds left. But Dunn races in from midcourt to save an errant inbounds on the ensuing possession and Bodden responds with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one. Stemley is fouled and makes the first of two free throws. Lennix hustles in to grab the miss on the second. After an East St. John timeout, Erin Keller is fouled and makes the second of two free throws, making it 51-48 with 13.4 seconds left. Warren Easton gets the ball across the midcourt and calls timeout with 9.3 seconds left. Toliver grabs the inbound and puts up a shot from inside the 3-point stripe on the right side that bounces off the rim. Drayton grabs the rebound and is fouled with 3.1 seconds left. Drayton admits later she was the worst free throw shooter on the team as a freshman. Giordano would take her out in the endgame so teams would not foul her. But she worked hard that summer to get better and now as a seasoned junior, she steps up to the line and buries two of the biggest free throws of the Lady Cats season to seal the 53-48 victory. “Make them,” Drayton says in the squad room on what was going on in her mind when she stepped up to the line. “I’ve got to make these. Every time I shoot free throws, I pretend I’m in a championship game and have to make them. It’s all on me. If I miss them, I lose it for the team.” The victory is the 31st of the season for the Lady Cats, setting a school record. It is also the 59th in a row at home. But more importantly, it sends the team to the quarterfinals for the first time in school history. “Guess what, we’re practicing tomorrow,” Giordano tells the team. “The rest of the way, they will all be close. We’ve played in big games to get ready for the playoffs. Keep you composure in close games. The good news is we got the win. You were down in the second half and got the win. The next one will be harder and maybe closer. We have to keep our playoff intensity up. I’m proud of you. Seniors, I’m proud of you. You broke two records tonight – most wins and you went the furthest.” Before leaving the squad room, the team always gathers for a cheer. This one is no surprise – “Final Four.” The team is only 32 minutes away from that goal. But to go north to Hammond, the Lady Cats must get through a westward journey to East Ascension.

Let’s dance

Back at the beginning of November, East St. John and East Ascension opened the 2000-01 season with a scrimmage against each other. A month later, the Lady Spartans would defeat the Lady Cats in three overtimes in the Zachary Tournament. Now, three months later, the two teams again meet each other with much more on the line – a trip to the Sweet 16 Tournament in Hammond. Both teams have had very successful seasons. East St. John won its fifth straight District 7-5A championship and enters the game with a 31-3 record. East Ascension captured the District 5-5A championship and is 25-5 overall. Before getting on the bus to head to Gonzales, East St. John head coach Troy Giordano calls his team into their squad room. “Are you ready to go play?” Giordano asks. “You have never lost in their gym. Three visits, three wins. You know what their gym looks like. You know what they look like.” Giordano then turns on the VCR and television. A highlight film of LSU’s national championships in baseball comes on with Kenny Rogers’ “When You Put Your Heart In It” playing in the background. The tape concludes with LSU head coach Skip Bertman giving a speech to his players. Giordano flips off the VCR. “When the year started, who believed ESJ could go to the Final Four?” Giordano asks. “Just the people in this room. You weren’t even picked to win your district. You lost your best defensive player. You lost your center. Nobody believed in you. Now you are one win away from making them eat their words. You are one win from going to the big dance. “Do everything. Take a charge, get on the ball, attack the rim. Play your game. Thirty-two minutes of hustle and you are going to Hammond. You already have one win against them and you lost in three overtimes when you played the worst you could play. You made going to the Final Four one of your three goals. The first two you have accomplished. You can accomplish the third tonight. Let’s go play basketball.” After the team takes warmups in the East Ascension gym, Giordano calls them together in the locker room approximately 20 minutes before the game. “Win tonight, we start taking photos and doing what we have to to prepare for the Final Four,” Giordano tells them after going over the game plan one last time. “I know come Wednesday, I want to go to the photo session. I would love to practice Wednesday. I would love to go out to eat in Hammond. We started here and we can end it here and go to the Final Four. It’s now up to the players who play the hardest. If I was a betting man, I’d bet on you.” East Ascension takes a 4-0 lead on a jumper in the lane by Valencia LeBlanc. East St. John comes roaring back with a 10-1 run to take a 10-5 lead on a jumper by Courtney Drayton from the right side. After a jumper by LeBlanc makes it a two-point game, Lennix drives in and follows with a jumper. A drive by Kojavona Hamilton makes it 17-9 as East St. John takes a 19-11 lead at the end of the first quarter. The lead grows to 24-13 as Hamilton converts a three-point play off a pass by Lennix. East Ascension begins to chip into the lead, pulling to within 24-18 on a jumper by Sherrl Andrews. After a 3-pointer by Danielle Stemley builds the lead to 27-18 with 1:11 left, East Ascension closes to within 28-22 at the half on a drive by Keirodlyn Andrews. “Every possession is critical,” Giordano pleads to the team at halftime. “There are not going to be too many points scored. Every basket is critical. It’s playoff time. Keep your composure. Defensively, pick it up. Don’t let them beat you by them out-playing you. Leave everything on the court, ladies. Attack the rim on the breakaways. “You are 16 minutes away and you have the lead. Except for some blown layups and missed defensive assignments, you have played a good overall game. Who is going with me in 16 minutes to Hammond? You can’t get any closer than this.” But the game could. The Lady Spartans pull to within 30-28 on two free throws by LeBlanc. A put back by Hamilton gets the lead back to five but Nateisha Silby ties it at 38 with a 3-pointer with 2:53 left in the quarter. Hamilton drives to regain the lead for the Lady Cats but Joy McMellen’s jumper from the left side tied it again at 40 going into the final quarter. A layup by LeBlanc gives the Lady Spartans the lead on the first possession of the fourth quarter. East St. John comes back with a jumper by Lennix and a put back by Velinda Ard to take a 46-42 lead. East Ascension takes its final lead in a jumper by Kimberly Kelson with 2:48 left and has the ball after an East St. John turnover before Drayton comes up with a steal under the basket. Lennix follows with a jumper from the left side to give the Lady Cats a 50-49 lead with 1:44 left. After a rebound by Ard, Stemley hits a running jumper in the lane to make it 52-49. East Ascension pulls to one on two free throws by Silby with 1:02 left but Stemley and Lennix respond with two free throws apiece to make it 56-51 with 17 seconds left. A foul against Silby with 10 seconds left adds a little apprehension for the Lady Cats. But Ard grabs the second shot and quickly passes to Lennix. Lennix gets the ball out to Drayton to runs the clock down to one second as the East St. John bench starts celebrating. “Where’s Velinda Ard?” Giordano yells as soon as he gets in the locker room.”You came up with the biggest put backs of your life. The three seniors stepped up big. Tell Southwood to get ready because we are going to the Final Four. They better come ready to play basketball. If anything, help Ehret win the title. Wear them down. “You’ve earned the respect you wanted. The hard work, the hard schedule, playing in hard games. It was to get you ready for tonight. You’ve accomplished all three goals. And now if you win two more games, you are the state champions. You get the ring. I’m so proud of you I want to cry.” Lennix was also near tears as she boarded the bus. “It’s wonderful,” Lennix said of going to the Final Four as a senior. But I still can’t be happy. I want to win the state championship. Losing in the second round for three straight years and making it my senior year, words can’t explain it.” Lennix wasn’t the only one having a hard time putting what she felt in words. “In the fourth quarter, I was getting nervous,” Stemley said. “We knew as seniors we had to pick it up to go to the Final Four. It feels so good I can’t even explain it.” Outside the gym, the Lady Cats begin dancing with their fans. It was only appropriate. They were heading to the big dance.